Civic Engagement

Did Reagan Launch the Social Entrepreneurship Movement?

Social entrepreneurship has led to excellent work, but without an informed and empowered population we will never address the core issues we face.

Hanging on the wall of my bedroom in 5th grade was a poster of Ronald Reagan. He sat confidently on a horse with a big smile and a cowboy hat. It was the symbol of my teenage rebellion—in the 1980s, there was nothing more horrifying to hippie parents like mine than the idea of their kid becoming a Republican.

By high school, with a few small adjustments, I was back to wearing my parents’ values (minus the hippie lifestyle). I started my own business, and later, in college, I applied my entrepreneurial skills to creating positive social outcomes. Six years later, I would start the Taproot Foundation and join all the social entrepreneurship clubs—from Ashoka to Draper Richards Kaplan.

For the first few years, I embraced the hubris of this movement. We were changing the world. We were bringing the effectiveness of business to the nonprofit sector. We were creating a new model for society to address the growing deficiency of government.

But then it hit me—like Reagan, the cowboy on my bedroom wall, we were embracing a destructive, shortsighted myth.

The entrepreneur in our society is the fabled lone ranger who rides into town with his ten-gallon hat, and brings justice and prosperity. The “social entrepreneur” enables Americans to project that story line onto the nonprofit sector. We picture Bill Gates and Henry Ford. We see the vast empires they built and imagine the impact they could have building social ventures, and solving our modern day problems with efficiency, management, and other business buzzwords.

The Skoll Foundation and others have tried to turn social entrepreneurs into rock stars and superheroes. Instead, what we need is to be aware of our real limits and embrace them. We need to be pushed to embrace models that serve those in need and that build rational public decisions and good policy.

Instead, the social entrepreneur is part of the folklore that makes the story of a state-less society seem possible and desirable. It fuels the modern pro-business and anti-government movements. We have helped America believe even more in Ronald Reagan—the cowboy on his horse who saw government as the problem and not the solution.

Social entrepreneurship has led to excellent work, but without an informed and empowered population we will never address the core issues we face as a people. Nonprofits can make only marginal impacts in the fields of education, healthcare, and the environment. Too many good people today don’t even consider jobs in local—or national—government. Worse, they look down on people who do. We need to reverse that and get more people on board to fix our civil society, rather than give up on it. We need our government to stand up and support long-lasting progress. This is the only lever that will really drive and sustain the positive social change we want to see in our nation.

Read more stories by Aaron Hurst.

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  • Alexandra Larschan, NYU Wagner's avatar

    BY Alexandra Larschan, NYU Wagner

    ON February 10, 2012 10:02 AM

    I’m interested to see how attitudes toward government work change depending on the local context.  Seeing some of the innovations in NYC government and the younger people choosing careers in city government here has changed my attitude towards pursuing a career in the public sector.

  • Skip Winitsky's avatar

    BY Skip Winitsky

    ON February 10, 2012 11:23 AM

    Ah yes, as John Ford (the guy who essentially created the cowboy movie genre) once said, “When the myth is better than the truth you go with the myth every time.”  But that leaves society with all kinds of really hard to shake beliefs (FACTS!) that have little to do with reality.

    That gives us a generation(s) for which those FACTS! becomes the operative business model.  Unless and until someone or something can blow up the myth the “best and the brightest” won’t see public service as the highest calling and there will be ongoing challenges.

    No irony intended but is there a social entrepreneur who wants to take on that challenge?  (Hey Social Entrepreneurship ain’t a bad idea.  It’s just one of many solutions).

  • BY Karen Gates

    ON February 10, 2012 02:03 PM

    Peter Drucker might very much appreciate your post:

    “What we need is an entrepreneurial society, in which innovation and entrepreneurship are normal, steady, and continuous.” (Drucker, “Innovation and Entrepreneurship,” 1985)

    “Government … is going to be the most important area of entrepreneurship and innovation over the next twenty-five years.” (Drucker, “Managing in the Next Society,” 2002)

  • BY Thien Nguyen-Trung

    ON February 14, 2012 05:10 AM

    Aaron, thanks for the post.

    I believe one thing you are getting at through your challenge for a stronger civil society was well expressed by Paul C. Light’s “Breakthrough Cycle” concept. You are probably familiar with the book, but for those not aware, in it the idea is that what we ultimately seek is to create some sort of social breakthrough. Within this objective, the social entrepreneur plays only one particular role - that of creating new ideas.

    But, according to Paul Light, the other roles cannot be neglected either, which are (2) defense and expansion of past breakthroughs (social safekeeping), (3) research, data and trend analysis (social exploring), (4) demand for change in social networks (social advocacy).

    Seen from this perspective, I suppose you are squarely advocating for social safekeeping institutions to be strengthened through an informed and engaged citizenship.

    I would agree with this being necessary, and that the “rockstar”/quasi-worship mentality of social entrepreneurship, while helping them to raise money (good thing), has also created an exaggerated attention on individuals (usually the founders). Instead, we should probably focus more on how to motivate, promote and retain the best and brightest possible “employees” (not founders) as talent to help those entrepreneurs take their organizations to the next level.

    I covered this a while back in “The Limit of Social Entrepreneurship - Room for Leaders, not Followers” (

    The only point I’d like to challenge you on to post a follow-up is the “how” to your calling for an improvement to the unjustly low perception that government work seems to suffer from nowadays in the U.S.

    Here are 3 my $0.02 suggestions:

    1) Fix the ATTITUDE - look at Japan, Korea, Singapore or other places where public workers and others in government consider it an HONOR to become “bureaucrats” or serve the public. Look at how carefully, precisely, efficiently and with pride they do their work from giving you a form to sign to processing it, sometimes wearing white gloves. Now compare that to the (not infrequently negative) attitude we get from U.S. public workers across all institutions, not to mention, those infamous immigration officers! Is it an “entitlement” issue or why is there such a huge difference in perspectives between countries?

    2) Fix the PAY and benefits - before retirement, that is!

    3) Agree on the ROLE of government - as you said, social entrepreneurship is partially an outcropping of a sentiment in the U.S. that government is not cool, inefficient, and that being “outside” the system is the way to go. Again, on the contrary, other countries regard it perfectly expected from government to have a larger role in everything from the economy to other issues in civic life. Because the U.S. public still has a strong aversion to leaving such “important things” as the markets to any involvement of the government, how can you make working and rebuilding the civic sector appealing anytime soon for the same “talent” that is flocking to social entrepreneurship and corporate sustainability nowadays? In my view, only by a changed social agreement that government is not only legitimate but also a vital source to SUSTAIN social change created by those hip entrepreneurs - and that working in support of this is the honorable and just thing to do - albeit not sexy.

  • BY Aaron Hurst

    ON February 14, 2012 02:00 PM

    It is wonderful to see that this blog is generating some discussion and thinking.  I do wonder if we need to look to Asia for solutions to address the attitude or if strong leadership in cities like NYC show that it can happen in the US with the right Rock Star Mayors (to Alexandra’s point).  The worry with NYC is that it might change with the next administration.  It is also interesting that the CIA and FBI are in the list of desired employers from top MBA programs.  How are they avoiding the brand that the rest of the government carries.

  • BY Jeff Jennings

    ON February 15, 2012 12:55 PM

    It’s true, I believe entrepreneurship is the loneliest career, even when you have business partners, no one can understand what you’re going through except other entrepreneurs that have taken on big ideas.

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